Tongue Tied

What pushes Tibetans in India to work for Chinese companies

An assembly of Tibetan schoolchildren inside a Tibetan Children’s Village in Himachal Pradesh. To accommodate Tibetan escapee children, until they learnt Tibetan, TCV middle-school libraries had Mandarin books and magazines. Maciej Wojtkowiak / Alamy Photo
31 March, 2023

“After the protest, I must fill this belly, support my family and pursue my ambitions,” Tenzin, a Tibetan in exile whom I met in September 2022, told me. He did not wish to disclose his full name. He has participated in the protests outside the Chinese embassy to commemorate Tibetan Uprising Day, on 10 March, nearly every year. He works for a Chinese multinational company, as a service facilitator, and possesses a skill highly valued in India: fluency in Mandarin. Tenzin is just one among many self-contradicting Tibetans in India, who have given in to the allure of working at companies that are either Chinese-owned or do business with China.

It is hard to miss the irony of Tibetans in exile earning a living from a language that forcefully replaced theirs in occupied Tibet. In 1959, after China suppressed the 10 March uprising, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and thousands of Tibetans sought asylum in India. The Indian government allowed them to set up various institutions to preserve their culture and way of life. Several families in occupied Tibet smuggled their children across the Himalayas in the hope that their children could live better lives under the guidance of the Dalai Lama.

While India–China relations have spiralled downwards, especially on the geopolitical front, it never seems to impact their high level of trade. In July 2022, Anupriya Patel, the Indian minister of state for commerce and industry, informed the Lok Sabha that imports from China had increased by almost thirty percent in the past five years. This trade requires linguistic intermediaries, fluent in both Hindi and Mandarin, who are also aware of the etiquettes of both nations. Tibetans came to be seen as perfect candidates to fill the vacuum. However, studying the pull factors, without the push, is half the story—it creates the illusion of choice, driven solely by economic considerations.

“Tibetans in India are greatly limited by their capability because of structural changes in employment,” Tashi Phuntsok, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Calcutta’s Vidyasagar College, told me. “The legal status of Tibetan as a foreigner is one of the primary reasons which has also forced them to migrate out of their settlements and take up odd jobs. And many who know Chinese join Chinese MNCs for their livelihood and survival.” As non-citizens, Tibetans are not eligible for government jobs, which pushes them to pursue employment in the private sector. There have been some developments under the 2014 Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, but its implementation has been less than satisfactory.